Teaching the Test

Last year I asked what broader social purpose is served by schools competing for position on NAPLAN league tables. I emphasised both the meaninglessnesss of the information (reiterated recently by David Hardie in Crikey) and the lack of any aggregate benefit from inducing families to compete in turn for places in high ranked schools. The prospect that class time would  be wasted on preparing kids for the test was only a minor problem I identified, and it wasn’t clear how significant a phenomenon this would be, at least in public schools.

Now the first round of tests in the Myschool era is approaching, and my impression is that the race is on, well and truly. Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention, but I have no recollection of any significant in-class practice sessions taking place in previous years. But they are now. This is, I stress, only my impression. But we will have to rely on anecdotal evidence for the time being. Yesterday the Herald provided depressing evidence that Julia Gillard’s department has no interest in gathering information on any adverse consequences of publishing school averages on the tests.

In the meantime I’m exploring the avenues for civil disobedience, starting with this email enquiry to the Policy Liaison Ofifcer for the New South Wales Education Department. I’ll let you know instantly the reply comes through.

Dear Liaison Officer,

I have two children in NSW public schools, one in primary and one in secondary.

In both schools I’ve become aware that principals have instructed teachers that the school must improve its ranking in the NAPLAN league table, and that class time should be devoted to preparing children for the May tests.

I note that while principals may wish to impress their employers with good and improving NAPLAN results, the achievement of these results is their challenge, not the students’. A child should not be asked to sacrifice time from her education to aid her principal’s quest for glory.

I don’t mean to imply that zero preparation is appropriate. Regarding preparation for the tests, the Frequently Asked Questions section on the NAPLAN web site has this to say:

Test practice involves students completing examples of previous tests or sample tests for the purpose of familiarising them with test instructions and common forms of questions.. preparation increases student understanding of what is being asked and provides strategies to focus on test content. Teachers routinely prepare students for testing including, as appropriate, practice on sample tests. Adequate preparation ensures that students feel comfortable in the testing environment and are able to confidently demonstrate what they know and can do.

My feeling is that more class time is being diverted to coaching for the NAPLAN tests than is necessary to ‘familiarise them with test instructions and common forms of instructions’.

I intend to ask the schools to excuse my children from the preparation, and let them read a book.

My question is whether there are NSW Department of Education policies that I can refer to in my correspondence with the respective principals (1) specifying how much class time should be diverted to NAPLAN preparation; and (2) guaranteeing my children’s’ right to be excused from non-curriculum activities of this kind.

Thank you for your trouble.

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14 years ago

Yesterday the Herald provided depressing evidence that Julia Gillard’s department has no interest in gathering information on any adverse consequences of publishing school averages on the tests.”

That’s not just depressing — it’s entirely corrupt and shows exactly why people shouldn’t jump at the idea of a national curriculum or other more minor silly things like Teach for Australia. Either that or we should all live in happy land where only happy things happen.

14 years ago

I remember wanting to be taught the test when I was at school. It would have left me more time to read books and stuff, rather than wasting my time with all that baby-sitting educational stuff. Perhaps I would have got a job too.

J-M. David
14 years ago

What’s really even worse is that official sites and (most) schools are not making the whole truth known to parents and instead perpetuating the false view that only a few students with specific educational situations are not undertaking the NAPLAN tests.

MANY students are not taking the tests: some, as per above, through being ‘exempted’ due to specific needs; MORE, however, are simply being withdrawn by their respective parent/carer.

ALL States and Territories have a clause that allows parents to withdrawn their child from participation (whether on philosophical or any other unstated grounds). In some States, the form is not easily obtainable, and has to be requested from the school, whereas in other states it is available online (one of course has to know where to look or what to ask for: a WITHDRAWAL form, not an exemption form).

See my own blog entry at:


It therefore seems to me that it’s not so much civil ‘disobedience’, but civil EDUCATION about the genuine possibility, and then acting upon such!

…and of course, the only way this can occur is by sharing along the information!

Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

I think we’re seeing cock-up, rather than conspiracy here. There are disincentives to publicity to inform parents that they have the option to withdraw their kids from NAPLAN.

In the Labor states, Premiers and Education Ministers who might want this more broadly publicised are up against the whole party loyalty thing, the need to present a united front in an election year etc. Colin Barnett’s government won’t have a problem with NAPLAN because it’s basically a re-badged Howard Government program.

Within the individual state public services, public servants work much closer to their Ministers – suggesting that the withdrawal option be more accessible and even publicised better? Probably get you consigned to that job in the basement of the building where you wait by a telephone waiting for someone to ring you and tell you that their phone isn’t working.

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago


Thanks for the usful information, I must confess that after reading the NSW exemption form I’m not much the wiser:

Exemption must be discussed with the school Principal. Reasons for exemption must be provided by the school.

So do parents have a right to exemption or not?

In any case, my own letter was about exmption from the coaching sessions rather than from the test itself.


Do employers look at NAPLAN results? Or have you missed the point of the post?

Simon Borgert
Simon Borgert
14 years ago

James I agree with you and like your civil disobedience campaign :) Rest assured that not all NSW schools are teaching to the test!

Yes my school wants to improved our students literacy and numeracy and we use the NAPLAN data as an indicator of key areas in which to focus (one of many such diagnostic tools that teachers use). But our data analysis just confirmed what we already knew – and we have modified our curriculum accordingly as part of the ongoing process of adapting learning opportunities to cater for the needs of the current crop of students.

Our students will do one practice test prior to the NAPLAN – to get them used to the format and length of time etc. i.e. so they know how to play the “NAPLAN” game!

Hopefully our efforts will see improvements in student literacy and numeracy – I am not sure how it will relate to improvements in NAPLAN scores – but I will tell you in a years time, when I can compare the performance of the same cohort of students (current Yr 8). P.S is would be greatly beneficial if the Government could release the results earlier to schools so they can modify curriculum more easily – from a diagnostic point of view.